Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding raises questions about intermarriage
NEW YORK (JTA) -- Is it possible that the first iconic Jewish picture of the decade is of an interfaith marriage?
Photographs taken Saturday show the Jewish groom wearing a yarmulke
and a crumpled tallit staring into the eyes of his giddy bride under a
traditional Jewish wedding canopy with a framed ketubah, a Jewish
wedding contract, in the background.
The couple is Marc Mezvinsky, the banker son of two Jewish
ex-Congress members, and Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of the former
U.S. president and current secretary of state.
The images and scant details of the tightly guarded wedding -- dubbed
by some the "wedding of the century" -- have raised a number of
questions about the significance of the union for American Jews and what
it says about intermarriage in America.
We should “celebrate the full acceptance of Jews by the larger
society that this marriage represents," Hebrew Union College sociologist
Steven Cohen told JTA via e-mail from Jerusalem.
At the same time, he noted, the fact that so few children of
interfaith unions, particularly those between Jewish fathers and
non-Jewish mothers, are raised solely as Jews raises the conundrum of
our age: “How do we Jewishly engage and educate the intermarried, while
at the same time maintaining our time-honored commitment to inmarriage?”
Cohen asked. “In short, we should celebrate the particular marriage of
these two fine individuals, but we ought not celebrate the type of
marriage it constitutes and represents."
The wedding had more than just a Jewish flair.
It was officiated by a rabbi, James Ponet, head of the Joseph Slifka
Center for Jewish Life at Yale University, along with a Methodist
minister. The marriage took place under a chupah. Friends of the couple
recited the traditional “sheva brachot,” the seven traditional Jewish
blessings given to the bride and groom. The groom broke a glass with his
foot, as is tradition. And according to several reports, guests danced
the hora and lifted the former president and the secretary of state,
Bill and Hillary Clinton, in chairs during the dance.
“Jewish men and women are senators and congressmen, and are in key
positions in the White House,” observed Leonard Saxe, the director of
the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social
Research Institute at Brandeis University. “This is a golden age for
Jews in America, and it shouldn’t surprise us that the daughter of a
former president and the daughter of the secretary of state marries a
Jewish man she has known much of her life.”
Yet some of the more liberal streams of American Judaism, which
accept intermarriage if the couple’s children are raised as Jews, chafed
at the fact that the wedding took place on Saturday, before the Jewish
Sabbath ended. The Reform movement frowns upon its rabbis conducting
weddings on the Sabbath, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism,
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, told JTA.
In 1973, the Reform movement decided officially that its rabbis would
be allowed to perform intermarriages, though they would be discouraged
from doing so, an edict that still stands today, he said.
“She has married in,” Paul Golin, the associate director of the
Jewish Outreach Institute, a nondenominational group that reaches out to
unaffiliated and intermarried families, said of Chelsea. “Some will say
he married out, but if he was marrying out, there wouldn’t have been
"The fact that they went to the effort to have a chupah and have a
rabbi and that he wore a tallis says a lot about their future direction.
Otherwise, why bother?”
The marriage has pushed the internal Jewish community debate about intermarriage into the view of mainstream America.
In the days before the wedding, the Washington Post asked several
rabbis in its “On Faith” column, “Is interfaith marriage good for
American society? Is it good for religion? What is lost -- and gained --
when religious people intermarry?”
Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative
Judaism, said intermarriage is certainly “not ideal,” but that the
Conservative movement in 2008 decided that it must welcome interfaith
families and “help their spouses along their spiritual journeys.”
Rabbi Shmuley Hecht, who is Orthodox and the rabbinical adviser at
Yale University’s Eliezer Jewish Society, said intermarriage can work
only if the non-Jewish spouse converts to Judaism through an Orthodox
conversion and genuinely changes religions. Otherwise, he said, the
marriage is doomed to fail because down the road any self-aware Jew,
“however defined, will feel the call of their people and have the
fullness of their being disrupted by intermarriage.”
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, also Orthodox and president of the National
Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, said that when marriages
break down it usually has little to do with religion. All religions
should stop worrying about intermarriage and start worrying about how to
help couples make their relationships work, he wrote.
Ed Case, the executive director of Interfaithfamily.com, said the
Clinton wedding certainly had stirred interest in intermarriage, noting
that traffic to his website was up 35 percent in July compared to the
same month last year. Case said that accepting this marriage and
welcoming this intermarried family into the Jewish fold could help pave
the way for the Jewish community to be more accepting of others.
Golin said he is skeptical that the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding does
anything more than revive existing battle lines in the Jewish debate
“The horse is so far out of the barn on this one,” Golin said, noting
that as an intermarried person himself, he is turned off by much of the
debate over intermarriage as a problem. “The folks who are fearful that
my kind of Judaism is going to destroy Judaism are still going to be
fearful. The folks who are fully embracing of interfaith families are
going to be embracing. I don’t see a whole lot of movement.”
Contacted by JTA, the Orthodox Union declined to comment on the
wedding. Separately, the head of its kashruth division, Rabbi Menachem
Genack, a longtime Clinton friend and political supporter, declined to
The Mezvinsky-Clinton wedding is affirmation both of the success of
the Jewish community and that American Jewry must learn how to deal with
intermarried families and figure out how to bring them into the Jewish
fold, the Reform movement’s Yoffie said.
“The price of our reaffirmation in American society is a high rate of
intermarriage,” he said. “We can’t be embraced and not expect that our
young people won’t be marrying with their young people. Unless we are
prepared to withdraw into a ghetto, there is no solution.”
“I look at the couple and my response is, ‘I hope they will make a
choice to raise their children in a single religion and tradition and
second, as a Jew and rabbi, I hope it will be Judaism. I don’t know if
they have had that conversation.”
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Jacob Berkman is JTA's chief
philanthropy correspondent. Read his blog (TheFundermentalist.com) and
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